Maple crème brûlée

The sap is running and maple sugaring season is well under way. Use the season's natural sweetner to create a silky crème brûlée with a caramelized sugar crust.

The Garden of Eating
Crème brûlée is easier to make at home than you may think. Use maple sugar to create the upper crust for added flavor.

I've been wanting to make crème brûlée ever since our friend, Lana, made these for us last winter. Before that, it had never occurred to me that one could make crème brûlée at home. In my mind, this decadently creamy dessert was reserved for French restaurants, alone.

But it turns out that it's not particularly hard – though you do need to plan ahead since there's both baking and cooling time required. And the result is, not surprisingly, completely delicious. Creamy, sweet, and silky with that delightfully crunchy, caramelized sugar crust you crack with your fork just before digging in to take a little taste of heaven. It's the perfect way to end a cold, snowy day.

After consulting a few recipes, I adapted the one I found on my friend Jen's wonderful blog, Use Real Butter which comes via Elegantly Easy Creme Brulee & Other Custard Desserts by Debbie Puente. The only real changes I made to the original recipe were to add a pinch of salt and to top these beauties with maple sugar instead of turbinado or brown sugar thanks to a suggestion from my friend, Lynn.

I love all things maple and am always happy to give a little nod to my lovely corner of the world where the sugar maple sap is already flowing whenever the temperature gets above freezing. I've also added a bit more detail to the directions for any of you who are newbies like I was.

When I set out to make these, I discovered that I am woefully understocked in the ramekin department so I made a quick trip next door to raid my mom-in-law's cupboards. But you can use any small, oven-safe bowl or cup you like.

Although crème brûlée feels like winter comfort fare to me, I am also really looking forward to making it with some of the lavender that grows in our yard come summer.

Maple Crème Brûlée
Makes 6 servings
8 egg yolks

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

A pinch of sea salt

1/4 cup maple sugar (for the tops – you can also substitute turbinado or brown sugar if you don't want to go the maple route)
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and pinch of salt together in a medium bowl until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Add the cream and vanilla and whisk until well-combined.
2. Divide the mixture evenly between 6 ramekins or custard cups (if you're using tiny ramekins you may get more than 6 out of this recipe, and fewer than 6 if you're using big cups). Place the ramekins in a large baking dish, making sure that they do not touch each other or the edges of the dish – I didn't have any single dish that was big enough to hold them all so I used two baking dishes – and then pour an inch or so of water into the dish, being careful not to get any water into the ramekins.
3. Bake until the custard is set around the edges, but still loose in the center (just give the dish a gentle shake with your pot-holdered hand to see if they still jiggle a little bit), between 40-60 minutes.
4. Once the custard is set, remove them from the oven and let them sit out in the water bath until fully cooled. Remove the cups from the water bath and chill, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
5. When you're ready to serve these treats, remove them from the fridge and use a paper towel or kitchen towel to dab any condensation off the tops. Spread a thin coating of maple sugar over each custard – enough to cover it evenly but it should not be thick. Set the oven to broil and put the ramekins on a baking sheet right underneath the broiler. Broil the sugar until caramelized and serve. Be very careful not to burn the sugar – it's all too easy to walk away and forget about them. If you're concerned about keeping the custards cool you can either refrigerate them again after you caramelize the sugar (leave yourself a good 35-40 minutes extra if you want to handle it this way) or you can place them in an ice water bath while you're caramelizing the sugar.

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